by Megan Keane
There’s a village lost in the mountains and valleys of Guatemala that wakes and sleeps with the sun. Each backyard is both a playground and a zoo. Instead of fences, trees separate them from their neighbors and a cliff distinguishes where the yard ends. Down below, you can hear the rumble of a river.
As you retreat from the houses and cross the street, you can hear the children in the school house. Occasionally, you’ll hear them singing. In the kitchen, some of their mothers put together a meal for us.
The days in Finca Florencia are so similar they can practically blend into one. Even as I sit in an office at Sacred Heart University, I can predict what they’re doing at any given moment. Men at work, women at home, children at school, all going through the motions of the perfect Guatemalan day.
Nothing really changes, no extraordinary events occur, until March every year. If you’ve chosen to apply and you’ve been blessed with an acceptance to go to Guatemala, you’re going to feel a lot of emotions. The first is excitement. Excitement to explore, to meet new people, to learn.
The second feeling is nervousness. The fear of not being able to communicate will overwhelm many students. You’ll ask returning students how to communicate with members of the community despite the fact that your Spanish language skills are equal to ordering off a Taco Bell menu. What you don’t know is that the language barrier will be broken by the love formed between the two groups.
It doesn’t take long for everyone to start knocking down the language barrier. Doctor Rojas is your man for breaking it down. At the first dinner, Doctor Rojas will get everyone’s attention and speak in his broken English.
“I speak in English, you speak in Spanish.”
That’s officially the first task of the week and everyone takes it in stride. This promise made to Doctor Rojas is key in the relationship you create with him. More than anything, Doctor Rojas wants to create a relationship with you. He wants to be your friend, your shoulder to lean on. Make the effort to create this relationship because throughout the years, he’s always been a constant.
Your promise to speak Spanish is also a promise to the entire community, especially the kids. All week, they’ll point to different objects and ask you how to say it. You’ll do it in return, bringing your Spanish language knowledge from Baja Blasts, Doritos Locos Tacos, and Nachos BellGrande to tenedor, cosquillas, and abrazo.
Although the vocabulary will expand, the favorite phrase will always be, “Hello, how are you?”
And you’ll respond, “I am good. How are you?”
It’s inevitable that participants will find themselves gravitating to a specific group of kids. Some are more in tune with the little ones. Others find that they enjoy the company of the older kids. I’ve been lucky enough to make connections with both.
I’ve noticed that over my four years in Guatemala, they go through significant changes. After a while, they’re a little less patient when teaching you their language. You’ll find that they giggle at you when you can’t roll your R’s or you pronounce double L’s. Either way, they’ll wait until you understand what they’re saying and then they’ll ask you how to say it in English. Appreciate those little moments, even though sometimes you’re learning words that you’ll never actually have to use in conversation again.
They love to play soccer and they hardly ever get tired. The energy is abundant and you’ll find that, although you go to the gym every day, you can’t keep up with them. They like music, too, but some are better at it than others. They’re all exceptionally smart and you’re going to be hurting when you find out that most of them won’t continue their education into high school or college.
You’re going to have a hard time saying goodbye, I’ve done it for four years and cried for all of them. These people love with all their hearts, even though they know we’ll only be there for a week each year. They welcome you into their homes, give you gifts in the forms of coloring book pages and bracelets, and they give the sweetest hugs you’ll ever receive. I promise you that saying goodbye to all of them hurts, but it’s not a bad kind of hurt… It’s the kind that makes you say, “Time for me to go back and experience it all over again.”